Teaching at the Crossroads: Choices and Challenges in College Composition

Gleason, Barbara

When we walk into a writing class for the first time, most of us, whether we're new or experienced teachers, feel at least some apprehension. Why? In part because teaching involves performance: both our successes and failures will be largely public. And as teachers of writing we want to be successful, not just for our own satisfaction or advancement, but because of the substantial responsibilities and challenges that we've undertaken.

Nowhere in a college curriculum are the responsibilities greater or more complex than in first-year writing courses, whether they be remedial, college-level, or mainstreamed. This is the curricular space where newly admitted students are introduced to college but also where institutional gatekeeping is expected of instructors. Moreover, despite their widespread presence in colleges and universities, the aims of first year writing courses are frequently controversial, both within college communities and within our profession.

In a well-attended presentation at the 1991 CCCC in Boston, David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow offered alternative views of first-year writing course goals in speeches that were later published in CCC (Feb. 1995). The question that Bartholomae and Elbow disagree on is this: Should first-year college writing courses immerse students in academic writing or should these courses encourage students to become writers? In support of academic writing as the goal, Bartholomae contends that students are embedded in a “linguistic present” that they should know about and work within as writers. Bartholomae argues for classes that entail critical reading, writing, and “struggling with the problems of quotation, citation, and paraphrase” (66). Taking issue with this initial emphasis on academic reading and writing, Elbow argues that becoming an academic is different from becoming a writer, i.e., many “academics” are not confident or effective writers and many “writers” are not academics at all. Elbow explains, “I see specific conflicts in how to design and teach my first year writing course. And since I feel forced to choose--I choose the goal of writer over that of academic” (“Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic” 73).

When we construct our writing class curricula, we make decisions that will impact our students as developing writers: what sorts of writing will we assign? which textbooks will we choose? what specific tasks should our students practice? how often? and in what order? Even when our syllabi and textbooks are determined by others, we can still slant our writing classes in one direction or another. Underlying these decisions are our assumptions/beliefs about the goals of our writing classes. The Bartholomae/Elbow debate has received widespread attention because this is an issue that is central to the experience of college writing instructors and to the development of college-wide writing programs. As professional writing instructors, we must each reflect on the issues, make choices, and act accordingly.

Choices We Make as Professional Writing Instructors

As we consider the aims of the courses we are teaching, we must also reflect on the expertise and the knowledge we need as professional writing instructors. What forms of expertise should we have as writers? If we teach academic reading and writing, should we be practicing academic readers and writers ourselves? Equally important are the knowledge bases that can inform our teaching, e.g., composition theory/research, writing pedagogy, rhetorical theory, computer technologies, literacy, sociolinguistics, second language learning and teaching, literature and literary theory. As professionals, we make our own decisions about whether or not to avail ourselves of these areas of knowledge. Although there are differing views of the expertise and knowledge that professional writing instructors should have, most writing teachers today acknowledge the value of teaching writing as a process.

Origins of The Writing Process Movement

Published histories of writing instruction tell us that process pedagogies did not originate in the past three or four decades. A few writing teachers included writing process instruction in their curricula well before process teaching became common in U.S. college writing programs. Theodore Baird of Amherst College, for example, included revision in a two-semester writing course that he developed and supervised from 1938 to 1966 (Varnum). However, writing process teaching was relatively rare prior to the 1970s. Two comprehensive histories of U.S. writing instruction make almost no mention of process pedagogies (Kitzhaber; Brereton). These histories indicate that from 1850 to 1925, U.S. college writing students listened to lectures, analyzed literary texts, learned rules of grammar or rhetoric, did workbook exercises, and practiced writing sentences, paragraphs, or daily themes. Instructors read their students’ writing with an eye toward correct language use, a product-focused approach often mentioned as a central feature of “current-traditional” writing instruction (Berlin 58-76). It comes as no surprise, then, that studies of students’ written products dominated the first survey of empirical research on written composition, which appeared in 1963 (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer).

The importance of this landmark publication has led Stephen North to identify 1963 as the year in which Composition emerged as a professional field (15). In Research in Written Composition, Richard Braddock et al. analyzed 504 empirical studies of writing instruction and of student writing; in so doing these authors made evident to 1960s readers the prevailing emphasis on students’ written products. Composing process pedagogies of the 1960s and 1970s arose in part as a reaction against product-focused pedagogies and research (Phelps 134). A second motivation for the emerging interest in process pedagogies was the growing presence of “non-traditional” students in writing classes. In “Where Did Composition Studies Come From? An Intellectual History” Nystrand et al. argue that open admissions policies such as the one at the City University of New York (1970) created a perceived literacy crisis that then spurred the formation of Composition. A third influence was the 1960s federal funding for education that resulted from Sputnik and a related math and science “crisis”; new support for seminars on teaching writing and for research fueled the creative energies that were needed to form a new professional field (North 12). Seeded in the 1960s and established in the 1970s, the writing process movement is now widely acknowledged as the intellectual springboard for our modern field of Composition.

Composing Process Pedagogies

Early versions of “the writing process” introduced a linear stage model, or a straight-ahead view of composing. This later gave way to a recursive theory that sees writing as a two-steps-forward one-step-back process in which writers can “discover” new meanings at any point along the way.

A linear stage model of composing: In a 1964 study, D. Gordon Rohman and Albert O. Wlecke presented a stage model of composing comprised of prewriting, writing, rewriting, and editing. Rohman then published “Prewriting: The Stage of Discovery in the Writing Process,” which helped establish a view of prewriting as the most important phase of the composing process. This emphasis on prewriting prevailed in the 1970s but then gave way to increasing interests in teaching revision, in students’ focusing on final written products (e.g., in portfolios), and in teachers’ assessment of student writing.

Emphasis on prewriting: In a 1972 essay entitled “Teach Writing as Process, Not Product,” Donald Murray described prewriting as “everything that takes place before the first draft” and as the phase of writing that “takes about 85% of a writer’s time” (90). Peter Elbow, Ken McCrorie, James Britton, James Moffett, Janice Lauer, and Ann Berthoff were also well-known 1970s advocates of process pedagogies that had a special focus on teaching prewriting or “invention.” This initial emphasis on invention provided teachers with a fresh new perspective on teaching writing but also led to the criticism that too little attention was being paid to the quality of students’ final drafts.

Contributions from Rhetoric: A revival of classical rhetoric during the 1960s and 1970s introduced to discussions about writing instruction the five parts of classical rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery), among which invention enjoyed a special status among teachers. Rhetoricians such as Edward P. J. Corbett, Frank D’Angelo, Richard Larson, and W. Ross Winterowd argued that invention strategies could be taught and learned as useful tools for probing and analyzing writing topics. In a 1975 bibliographic essay, Richard Young describes a wide range of invention strategies, e.g., the topoi from classical rhetoric, Kenneth Burke’s pentad, and tagmemics. In this essay, Young anticipates an upcoming challenge to linear stage models of composing by asserting “the act of writing itself can be seen as a heuristic for discovering content” (35).

From linear models to recursive models: In 1980, the linear stage model of composing was challenged by Nancy Sommers and by Sondra Perl. In “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers,” Sommers used the results of an empirical study to demonstrate that experienced writers continually “invent” new ideas as they revise. This view of “writing as discovery” suggests that revising involves writers in attending to multiple goals, e.g., discovering new ideas and editing. Similarly, Perl described composing as a recursive process that entails rereading of small units of text mid-way through writing, with rewriting of short passages serving to move writers forward. Both Sommers and Perl argued that composing involves backward and forward movements that allow writers to generate new meanings as they write and rewrite.

Collaborative Learning and Writing

A second major shift in thinking about “the writing process” occurred when writing came to be viewed as a social act and as a practice that is embedded in social contexts (Reither and Vipond; Holzman). The term “collaborative learning” best captured this newly emerging view of writing and writing instruction.

Among composition professionals, collaborative learning was highlighted when peer tutoring was introduced (Bruffee “The Brooklyn Plan”), when workshopping and peer groups were acknowledged as valid approaches to teaching and learning (Bruffee A Short Course in Writing; Gere Writing Groups), and when co-authoring/ collaborative writing became a focus of research (Ede and Lunsford).

During the 1970s and 1980s, college writing instructors increasingly incorporated writing groups and peer response into their pedagogies. These teachers viewed writing groups as occasions for student authors to gain greater appreciation of audience, reader-writer relationships, and the communicative function of written language. Some teachers found the immediacy of oral response to be particularly advantageous to student writers (Gere and Stevens “Language”).

However, many teachers’ early attempts to use collaborative learning in their writing classes were disappointing. Writing instructors quickly learned that successful collaborative learning pedagogies require careful planning and explicit instructions. Even more to the point, the problems some teachers experienced were not merely a matter of logistics or planning: collaborative learning pedagogies required teachers to reconsider their assumptions about knowledge. This highly social approach to learning, knowing, and writing conflicted with (1) a traditional Cartesian view of knowledge as “information impressed on the individual mind by some outside source” (Bruffee “Collaborative Learning” 646) and (2) New Critical views of text as having its own “objective authority” (Trimbur “Collaborative Learning and Teaching Writing” 95). In a highly influential essay entitled “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” Kenneth Bruffee argued that students’ collaborative learning experiences enact the process by which knowledge is “socially constructed.”

Bruffee maintained that as students converse about their writing, they do not merely benefit as individual writers: rather, they learn “to think well collectively,” to “converse well,” and to “establish and maintain . . . the sorts of conversation members of the community value” (“Collaborative Learning” 640). Using the terminology of Stanley Fish, Bruffee described writing groups as “interpretive communities,” that is, as interactive groups of readers who form communal judgments about texts and meanings through the use of “symbolic structures, chiefly language” (640). In short, Bruffee encouraged teachers to reject the view that learning is “reflecting and synthesizing information about the objective world” (651) and to embrace the idea that learning is a social process which entails “joining larger, more experienced communities of knowledgeable peers” by accepting the group’s “interests, values, language, and paradigms of perception and thought” (646). Like the writing process advocates who preceded him, Bruffee proposed innovations in teaching that were supported by a new stance toward learning and writing.

The full impact of Bruffee’s argument can be seen in the many published responses to his work. In “Consensus and Difference in Collaborative Learning,” for example, John Trimbur identifies two major criticisms of Bruffee’s ideas: (1) a view that his emphasis on consensus “stifles individual voice and creativity, suppresses differences, and enforces conformity” (602); and (2) the criticism that Bruffee’s ideas on social constructionism do not go far enough, i.e., they are too limited to what goes on inside classrooms and thus in danger of reproducing the unequal, unjust social structures that exist outside schools (Myers).

Computer Technologies and Collaborative Writing

Despite criticisms of Bruffee’s views on collaborative learning, the social perspective on writing that he and others successfully promoted has played an increasingly central role in composition pedagogy and research. The intersection of collaborative writing and computer technologies offers one important example. While computer-linked classrooms and writing centers were becoming a more common feature of colleges, computer software packages were being developed for interdependent groups writing at school and at work. These uses of technology have become a focus of research that can be found in books, mainstream composition journals, and in a specialized journal, Computers and Composition. Of the many composition professionals who have spoken and written about computer technologies and composition, Cynthia Selfe has been most prominently at the forefront.

The use of computer technologies for collaborative writing and learning has been the subject of many research studies. In “Computers and Collaborative Learning,” for example, Forman argues that composition professionals should become more involved in designing computer software products for interdependent group writing (“groupware”). Four years later, Forman published a study of college students’ responses to groupware products and their learning experiences while working in writing groups. Her finding: that individual students varied in their reactions to computer-linked writing group situations and to specific groupware products. Students’ individual responses to computer-linked writing groups, Forman suggests, are likely to be affected by their prior experiences with technology, writing, and group work (“Literacy, Collaboration, and Technology”). Forman’s research (and that of many others) suggests that computer technologies will offer many choices for writing students and challenges for teachers and researchers.

One challenge is to learn more about computer technologies and their applications for writers and teachers. Cynthia Selfe points out that the composition profession as a whole has been reluctant to address computer technologies systematically and aggressively, preferring instead a piecemeal approach that is “dangerously shortsighted” (513). By ignoring computer technology developments, composition specialists remain too uninvolved in designing technologies that will be used in schools and too distant from public policy decisions about education and technology. Selfe argues further that computer technologies are closely associated with the same educational and social inequities that literacy educators such as Mike Rose, Brian Street, and Elspeth Stuckey have described in their scholarship. Sophisticated computers, internet access, CD-ROM equipment, and videodisc technologies are all less likely to be found in schools that primarily enroll students of color and students who are poor than students who are middle-class or affluent and white. It is therefore incumbent on literacy educators to pay close attention to these new technologies, to their uses and distribution in schools, and to relevant social and political issues.

Multiculturalism and the Teaching of Writing

As collaborative learning pedagogies became more firmly ensconced in writing classrooms, students’ learning experiences, communication styles, and political leanings became more apparent to their teachers. Now writing instructors were doing more listening and interacting in small groups and less talking to whole classes from the front of the classroom. The “authority” of teachers was placed under question as student-centered classrooms became an important goal. As teachers were listening more, they were also learning who their students were.

One important reason for teachers’ paying more attention to students’ views and cultural identities was the changing nature of U.S. college student populations. During the 1970s and 1980s, more students entering college came from working-class communities, from previously underrepresented ethnic groups, and from other countries. Many of these students were older adults returning to the classroom. The rise in community colleges and the open admissions policies in some senior colleges created opportunities for these “new” students but also presented challenges for their teachers. The changing demographics of students entering college provided the impetus for a rising interest in multicultural perspectives on literacy and learning. This increasingly important focus on students’ cultural diversity was supported by ethnographic studies of community literacies and by poststructuralist theories of interpreting literature.

Teachers who were interested in their students’ cultural diversity responded by designing new forms of writing course curricula (Severino et al.). Some teachers encouraged students to reflect on their own culturally influenced ways of thinking and to learn about others’ cultural perspectives. This approach suggested a need for multicultural readers--anthologies of stories, poems, and essays written by authors representing a variety of cultures and ethnicities. This new textbook genre appeared initially in the late 1980s and became a standard offering by most composition textbook publishers by the mid-1990s. One of the earliest and best-known of the multicultural readers is Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing (Colombo et al.), now in its fifth edition. This book is advertised as presenting “diverse political and cultural perspectives as grist for critical thinking” and a set of readings that “encourage students to recognize and critically examine the cultural myths that shape their own thinking and values” (Composition Readers, Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2001 catalogue).

A second approach to creating multicultural writing course curricula was inspired by Shirley Brice Heath’s ethnographic study of community literacies. Heath proposed that teachers become ethnographers in order to learn about their students’ home literacies and that students become ethnographers in order to bring their communities into the classroom. In “Multicultural Classrooms, Monocultural Teachers,” Terry Dean argues that students bring their own diversity into the classroom by writing about their communities, cultures, and languages and then sharing their writing to build multicultural communities of writers. This approach is further supported by Paulo Freire’s theory of critical literacy, which joins becoming literate to gaining awareness of the political and social realities that affect both perceptions and conditions of living and being in the world. In Freire for the Classroom: A Sourcebook for Liberatory Teaching, Ira Shor offers a collection of essays by teachers who invite students to write about their lives and cultures as a way of becoming personally and politically empowered.

Basic Writing, Mainstreaming, and the Politics of Remediation

Many of the “new” students admitted to college in recent decades were tested and found to be lacking in “basic writing skills” when they entered college. The initial response was to provide support for these students in the form of remedial writing courses and peer tutoring. Mina Shaughnessy is widely acknowledged as having inspired a newly enlightened perspective on “basic writers.” However, the remedial programs that Shaughnessy and many other progressive educators helped build created new difficulties for students and teachers. Mike Rose was the first composition scholar to point out the problems posed by placing college students in remedial writing classes: diluted writing course curricula, lowered expectations on the parts of teachers and students, inappropriate and invalid evaluations of students’ literacies, and negative self-images on the parts of many students who were enrolled in these classes.

One response to these critiques has been to place remedial-placed students directly in college-level composition courses. This decision to “mainstream” remedial writing students has taken two forms: (1) “directed self-placement,” whereby students make their own decisions about whether to enroll in remedial or college-level writing courses (Royer and Gilles); (2) direct admittance to college-level composition courses, sometimes with special adjunct tutoring/workshops for students who intitially tested as “remedial” writers (Grego and Thompson; Rodby and Fox; Soliday and Gleason; Gleason).

Meanwhile, conservative politicians, university officials, and educators began questioning the practice of admitting “remedial” students at all to senior colleges. Funding for remedial programs in colleges and universities has been scaled back in several states, including Florida, Georgia, California, Illinois, and New York. In the City University of New York, a “remediation phase-out” policy for senior colleges was recently approved by a vote of the CUNY Board of Trustees and is now being implemented. Now students who fail entry-level skills tests (in reading, writing, and math) will not be admitted to CUNY’s senior colleges, regardless of high school class rank or grade point average. Many applicants who would previously have gained admission to a senior college will now be diverted to CUNY’s community colleges. This will place an unprecedented burden on these community colleges, where fewer full-time faculty carry heavier teaching loads and a high proportion of classes are taught by adjunct faculty.

Many colleges and universities nationwide are restricting admissions policies and reducing funding for remediation. Those who will be hardest hit are students who have not acquired the languages and literacies associated with U.S. higher education and students from poor and working class backgrounds. Today’s college writing instructors will therefore benefit from understanding how literacy learning intersects with possible disjunctions between the discourses of home, neighborhood, work, and school. Moreover, college writing teachers may well want to consider becoming involved in decision-making processes that will influence students’ experiences across the curriculum and that will determine their initial access to U.S. colleges and universities.


* This essay is forthcoming in Simon and Schuster’s Handbook for Writers, 6th ed. by Lynn Troyka. It appears for the first time here, with the permission of Simon and Schuster Publishers.

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© 2001, Simon and Schuster Publishers. Used by permission.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

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